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The Pain Persists

Locals mourn fire destruction of former Catholic school


An abandoned church in Chester, formerly St. Anthony School at 3rd and Parker sts., was destroyed by an early morning fire last week.

An abandoned church in Chester, formerly St. Anthony School at 3rd and Parker Sts., was destroyed by an early morning fire last week.

A three-alarm fire last Tuesday destroyed the abandoned former St. Anthony School in Chester at 3rd and Parker Sts. For countless current and former Chester residents, the fire had great personal significance. Social media was buzzing with comments from people near and far sharing memories of their time at St. Anthony School.

“This is so very sad,” wrote 1968 graduate Anna Maria Leropardi. “All of my childhood memories are gone with the wind. No more memories; all gone up in flames.” Joanna Seilus Mattis attended St. Anthony from first to eighth grade. “It was a wonderful school with the Franciscan Sisters, who were kind and sweet,” she wrote. “I still have my elementary school friends in my life.”

Chester firefighters were called at 3:48 a.m. and found the structure fully involved, and a second alarm was called. Fire companies from across the county responded, and, due to the nature of the fire, a collapse zone was set up.

A rear view of the attached convent.

A rear view of the attached convent.

Soon after, ariel devices were brought in, and a third alarm was sounded.

Officials are investigating the origin of the fire and whether anyone was inside the building prior to its destruction. Fire investigators are being assisted by dogs from the City of Philadelphia who are trained in detecting accelerants. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is also involved in the investigation. Following the closure of St. Anthony School in 1971, the building was initially sold to a local church. The structure changed hands until it was purchased by St. Mary’s Church. The building fell into disrepair and was abandoned decades ago. Often, homeless individuals sought the building for cover. Before it was St. Mary’s Church, the building housed St. Anthony School for 50 years.

Built in 1921, the school was constructed to educate the children of Italians in the city. To attend St. Anthony, it was necessary for a student to prove their Italian heritage. The school was staffed by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception for its entire existence until it was closed in 1971 by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia due to a lack of students.

Firefighters quicky called a third alarm to fight the blaze at the former St. Anthony School and convent. The convent was attached and situated to the left of the school. Its cross can be clearly seen in this photograph.

Firefighters quickly called a third alarm to fight the blaze at the former St. Anthony School and Convent. The convent was attached and situated to the left of the school. Its cross can be clearly seen in this photograph.

The closing of St. Anthony School was the first step in what was to become a mass closing of schools and Roman Catholic churches in Chester.

St. Anthony Church, then located at 3rd and Franklin Sts., a few blocks away from the school, continued to serve the community until its closure in 1995. The church was one of six that were closed that year and eventually merged into St. Katherine Drexel Church on Providence Ave.

The church, which still stands, was purchased and became White Rock Baptist Church.

St. Anthony School was in operation from 1921 to 1971 in the City of Chester.

St. Anthony School was in operation from 1921 to 1971 in the city of Chester.

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